Archive for July, 2010

The Good, The Bad and the Downright Ugly: Borat does the UK Open

The UK Open is the highlight of the surfboat season. It is the one day of the year when the established surf rowers (boaties) dangle their collective chins in the air and say to the rest of the rowing world: “Come on then, have a pop. If you think you’re ‘ard enough.”

Truth be told, river clubs (flatties) like Molesey and Twickenham have now turned up enough times to be considered regulars. This year, however, three crews from Thames, three from France, two from Nottingham (again), and one called Never Led, No Big Deal NZ were among those who also picked up the cudgels. There was a first Celtic Longboat rower blazing a trail, still no sign of any gig rowers and a disappointing lack of ladies crews.

In years past some flatties have appeared more concerned with the exposure that comes from donning swimming trunks than being run over by a 26’ boat thundering down a breaking wave. This year, however, the boys from Thames RC showed the rest how to embrace the Speedo revolution. One crew sported a leopard skin thong, another a DayGlo pink monstrosity that seared the eyeball, but it was Thames Telemetry who stole the show.

Three of the crew wedged up in a gold number so transluscent it seemed that, even on a second glance, they were rowing stark-rowlock naked. It was Ben Stokes, however, who had Gok Wan salivating on the sand and pleading for his telephone number. It wasn’t that his white mankini was tight, it wasn’t that it failed to cover some of his more hirsute areas to the extent that desperate pleas were being made to Gillette and Ladyshave for a sponsorship deal: it was his absolute, brazen lack of shame that had even Borat nodding in approval.

To be fair to Ben, it was his stag week-end and the choice of attire was not exactly his. Hailing from Newfoundland in Canada his crew-mates referred to him in glowing terms. “An athlete in disguise,” said one. “Farmer strong,” added another. Once the safety briefing was done on Friday afternoon, the Thames boys retreated to the pub to get on with their week-end’s serious business.

Race day dawned dull and disappointing. The feeble swell of the evening before had dropped yet further and a gutless 1’ dribble lapped the water’s edge. Older heads took one look and advised everyone to wait until the tide started to push.

In the Men’s contest, there were four heats in each of the three qualifying rounds. The Paris “White” crew arrived with the tricolour sprayed in their hair but neither they nor their “Black” comrades were there to make up the numbers, immediately demonstrating both speed and high levels of fitness.

The same could not be said for the Thames crews. In the good old days, racing a surfboat meant a mandatory requirement to fail either a drugs or alcohol test (preferably both) on the beach before being allowed to row. It was a good job no-one from FISA was present on the beach with the beloved plastic pot. Borat’s mankini was still white but the man himself was looking decidedly green around the gills.

By contrast, the NZ crew looked in ominous form. Subtle questioning revealed that, in fact, the four were part of the eight who raced for the 1829 Boat Club and won the Thames Cup at Henley. Three of the boat hailed from New Zealand and already had time served in surfboats.

Porthtowan Blue Bali and the Bude Barracudas, the reigning UK and European Champs respectively, made a mental note but weren’t put out. Seen it all before. The form crews scored heavily in the early skirmishes. For them things only became interesting in the semis.

In the Ladies contest, the six entered crews raced three rounds and then went to a straight final of five boats. Bude Runners, with a healthy lead in the Shyman Summer Series contest, started as favourites. Neither Porthtowan’s Pure Blue nor Perranporth’s Raiders were ready, however, to gift them the title.

As the tide pushed in so both the wind and the swell picked up. With the course almost twice as long as normal endurance began to play a part. That played into the hands of the Bude girls who had demonstrated their fitness levels at the Truro-Falmouth river race in the season’s traditional curtain-raiser. They won each of the three qualifying rounds with a minimum of fuss.

At their request, the Ladies final took place after the Men’s quarter-finals. The crews were broadly line abreast as they cleared the waves but, in the lumpy conditions beyond, the Runners put the hammer down and simply rowed away from the fleet. At the cans they had an advantage they would not squander but the battle for the minor places was still very much to be fought out. Pure Blue turned in second but the Raiders found a long runner that they surfed most of the way home to take silver. Pure Blue came home third.

The Thames fashionistas did well to make the semis but none progressed to the final race. Both French crews qualified with Twickenham and the three heavy hitters, the Barracudas, Blue Bali and 1829’s NZ exiles.

Bali would have beaten Usain Bolt off the start let alone the mortals in the other boats but by the turn the Barracudas had rowed them down. The run home was nip and tuck with one crew taking a small lead on a runner only to be passed by the other crew on the wave behind.

In the end Bali won by a short head, retained their title and avenged last year’s defeat at the European Championships. The crew of Nick Healey, Ed Hartgill, Mladen Macanovic and Tom Hanna, swept by Gary Walters, have set the benchmark for several years now and don’t look like stopping any time soon.

NZ came home third, a solid result for a first outing together in surf yet, perhaps, also a disappointment for rowers accustomed to winning.

With the rowing finished, the crews migrated to a local hostelry for the final boat race of the day (or ten) which then became an arm-wrestling competition and after that, well, the memory fades.

A good day’s racing in pretty average conditions, thanks are due to all the officials, volunteers, RNLI crews who provided water cover, clubs who loaned boats and kit and finally, to the rowers who had a go. We hope to see you all again – with others – next year – and don’t forget the European Champs in Holland this August.

Controversy Stirs as Anticipation Mounts

Next Saturday sees the 2010 UK Open at Saunton Sands.

This is the FA cup of surfboat racing when the established hands get to rub rowlocks with those giving it a lash for the first time and some welcome attendees from foreign parts. It’s an all-in-one-day winner-take-all shoot-out.

And just to spice up that heady mix, the winning crew will be invited to represent GB in the NZ centenary surf life saving titles.

It is this last snippet that has started to work some heat under collars. What if the event is won by a River Club who’ve put in a boat-load of ex World Champ/Olympic rowers? What if there is no surf and it becomes a river race with a jump start, turn and running finish thrown in?

Many of these concerns perhaps smack of seeking to preserve vested interests. While it would be galling if a crew of novice surfboat rowers, but bloody good rowers, took home the pot, it was UKSRL who invited them in in the first instance. It was UKSRL who took the decision to run the event at Saunton, a safe beach without the dredging low-tide close-outs that scare the bejesus out of most rowers on the exposed west facing beaches. And it is UKSRL rowers who have benefitted from seeing highly technically competent rowers strut their stuff.

Truth be told, when the door was first thrown open many thought the flatties wouldn’t have the cojones to take on surf. Then the Bristol boys turned up, turned over at Biarritz, kept on rowing, and turned over everyone at last year’s European Champs. No fluke there.

Molesey too have been regular irregulars and the boat they fielded at Watergate last year was probably the most medalled ever to paddle out at a surfboat event. And were there ever waves? Check out the images if you weren’t there.

It’s true that the women haven’t made as much of an impression and why that is remains something of a mystery, and a shame.

Have boaties learned as much about the fine art of rowing as flatties have learnt about the sweet science of surfing. I fear not. And that begs the question, why not?

So, let them all come I say. Let them blush as they don their speedos, let them blanche as the first wave breaks over the boat and let the best crew, on the day, take home the title.

Oh and one more thing. Let there be waves!

Nerves jangling at Watergate Bay

This post may have a slightly different feel to it. Andy Cox our wordsmith has disappeared to darkest Brittany on an annual “boys” trip to visit french stately homes and gardens and to actively avoid the local distractions of fine restaurants and surf bars. I write as one who has been left behind to mind the fort.

I remember well in 2006 my anticipation of watching France win the World Cup final against Italy in the same french surf bar and the building excitement of the all night party about to take place only to have France lose and the place turn into a morque!

Anticipation could be a word to describe the lead up to Round 3 of the Summer Series at Watergate Bay. The venue is purposely placed in the Series calendar to cause upsets. A west facing beach open to the full force of the Atlantic swells. The nerves begin to jangle as those destined to compete start checking the surf forecast websites early in the week and texts begin to fly.

Monday said the swell would be 10ft with a storm going up over Scotland, groundswell on it’s way. Forecast pretty much accurate, will the swell decrease enough by Saturday?

Saturday dawned and all is right with the world, the Alligators from Llantwit Major stormed to a two point victory over the Blue Bali crew who suffered a dq in one of the heats. As the day went on rollovers and backshoots took place, but despite it all The South Wales crew won the Mens event.

The Alligators are lying second in the overall standings and they could be a pretty safe bet to cause an upset at the UK Surfboat Championships at the end of July.

Advice to the Bournemouth Beavers (a crew just out of pre school) is choose a nice easy beach to learn surfboat rowing. So, they decide to turn up at Watergate Bay ! Under the guidance of their sweep Dan Berriman they make it out and back three times.

Advice, Ok, put the boat on the trailer, let’s go to the pub !

In the womens Summer Series the not so, Shygirls from Bude are blasting away from the rest of the field. Unless they encounter a major problem, the series is well within their grasp. For the other crews trailing in thier wake, focus turns to the UK Open Surfboat Championships and/or the European Surf Rowing Championships at the end of August…………more bling for girls.

Celtic Longboats

So, last week-end found me deep in darkest Wales, at the top of the west coast to be precise, to watch the annual round Ramsey Island race. There’s a number of things to say:
- It’s a heck of a long way;
- AA breakdown membership is worth its weight in gold;
- The people and the place itself make the time and trouble well worth it.

Ramsey Island is a dramatic shard of rock lying just off the coast from the beautiful Whitesands beach. My reason for going there – hey Dick Whittington didn’t go this far west – was to find out a little more about a cousin of the surfboat, namely, the Celtic Longboat. And, as it turns out, the Longboat’s history is intertwined with the history of Ramsey Island.

In 1978 an Irish curragh, a surf canoe heralding from the Dingle region, washed up on the shores of Ramsey Island. A couple of years later and a few of the locals decided to fix it up, inaugurate a round Ramsey Island race, and compete in their newly acquired and renovated mean machine.

Except that when the day for the race dawned in 1981 it was gusting at 20-25 knots and the contest was transferred to a five-mile row down a stretch of the mainland coast. They rocked up expecting to win but in a bit of a shock to their collective egos the Islanders trailed home fourth. At another event the next day they came seventh.

With tails between their legs our boys retreated to their island fortress to deliberate over the next move. One of their number, Des Harris, spent the winter building a new boat from plywood. He was the cathedral stone-mason in his day job which tells you all you need to know about his abilities as a craftsman.
The boat was complete when Des realised it was too short so he sawed it in half and inserted another section to make it longer – the Longboat was born.
The next step – revolutionary at the time – was to make a fibreglass mould and build the new boat from that.

Ramsey entered the new vessel for the first time in July 1982 at the Tenby Round Island race against, amongst others, the delightfully named home crew, the Bass Catchers. The boat was not received well and Ramsey were disqualified before the start on the basis that the boat was custom-built. Nevertheless, they were allowed to row and romped home to a comfortable victory.

Word soon spread about the new kid on the block and Ramsey found themselves banned even from putting to the water at the Solva race shortly afterwards. An impasse of sorts had been reached.

The Bass Catchers came to chew over the situation with the Ramsey boys. They would not accept that the Islanders were the better rowers (sound familiar?) but it was beyond dispute that they had the better boat. How was the situation to be resolved?

In a hugely generous gesture, Robin Pratt, one of the Islanders, offered to build the Bass Catchers a boat at cost. All of the local teams soon followed suit and Robin gave each the same terms. The Longboat was established.

For those of you who want to have a crack at something different, the Ramsey Island race is a 7.5 mile paddle. The current can reach 6 knots. At the south end of the island the crews shoot a narrow gap called the Devil’s Tooth. Even if there is no swell the sheer volume of water flooding through the gap can make for a standing wave. It is not unknown for boats to overturn here.

On the day I saw it conditions were benign but several rowers got wet as they shot the gap and there were plenty of shouts and whoops. I reckon some of the Longboaters would take a serious liking to catching a real wave.

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